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Germany helps UN Global Pulse reinforce a growing culture of innovation in Africa

Felicia Vacarelu, Communications Specialist, UN Global Pulse
Dec 3, 2018

UN Global Pulse welcomes the support of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development of Germany to help build more responsible, efficient, and inclusive artificial intelligence applications and frameworks in Africa.

How can we create AI innovations that help achieve the SDGs? How can we avoid biases in AI applications that perpetuate inequalities and discrimination? Where does the liability rest for harm caused by AI? How do we ensure that developing economies benefit the most from the responsible use of these technologies?

Algorithm-based systems powered by big data and artificial intelligence increasingly learn from and autonomously interact not only with their environments, but also one another, leading to patterns of behaviour that cannot always be predicted in advance, nor be explained after they have occurred.

UN Global Pulse attended the German National Digital Summit, where the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) organized a panel on AI in Africa on 3rd December 2018.

At the event, State Secretary Norbert Barthle (BMZ) and UN Global Pulse chief data scientist Miguel Luengo-Oroz announced  a new collaboration between the two partners to accelerate the adoption of AI innovations for the SDGs and to create a roadmap for the development of a blueprint for national AI strategies in Africa.

(left to right): Musa Mhlanga, Reginald Eugene Bryant, Nanjira Sambuli, Parliamentary State Secretary Norbert Barthle (BMZ), Dr. Miguel Luengo-Oroz

Luengo-Oroz explained the collaboration will build on Global Pulse’s existing work in Africa.

“We are excited to have Germany’s support to expand the range of AI-based projects and tools we are developing. We know that the use of these technologies comes with an entirely new set of challenges which will require new frameworks, particularly in the area of privacy, ethics and data protection,” he explained.

Developing economies can gain the most from the use of AI if new applications are built with contextual knowledge. To reap the benefits of technological progress, countries must have access to the data, tools and human expertise necessary to develop responsible applications.

“For technology to augment social and economic development, we need to build ethical considerations and mechanisms into the data innovation process, to ensure AI development is grounded in human rights,” Luengo-Oroz said. “We work with local partners in Government and the UN, and with private sector and academia to explore and develop together socially beneficial tools and applications.” 

UN Global Pulse - through its lab in Kampala - has been working to reinforce a growing culture of innovation, through initiatives like Data Science Africa, and partnerships with a number of universities and innovation hubs, including Makerere University in Uganda, Stellenbosch University in South Africa  and the Dedan Kimathi University in Kenya.

Over the last two years, the Lab has been engaging with commissioners and data privacy experts in Africa, through the UN Global Pulse Data Privacy Advisory Group, to facilitate the exchange of knowledge between different countries and to help set up and implement national data protection and privacy strategies.

With support from the Government of Germany, UN Global Pulse plans to enhance opportunities for collaboration between public and private sector stakeholders to advance efforts to integrate AI strategies into national plans. In addition, the Lab will continue to develop tools and applications that can help better inform planning and response programmes.

Among others, the Lab has built the first speech recognition technology for local Ugandan languages that converts public discussions on radio into text and is now working on a new tool that can extract, analyze, and visualize that information. The Lab uses satellite imagery and deep neural network architectures to help identify structures in settlements and slum mapping to inform operations and policies; and has developed tools and data visualizations to help respond to disease outbreaks and monitor the delivery of healthcare services.